Many people celebratde Easter this weekend. In communities across the country, children ran around the grass picking up Easter eggs. For some of them, it may have been a rare opportunity to play outside.
What do you remember from childhood? Did you play in the creek, build treehouses, catch frogs? Did you walk to school, experiencing the weather and the changing seasons? Or did you mostly stay inside or in built, regulated environments?
A recent report from the UK National Trust attracted some media attention. It documents the fact that children in the UK spend less time outside than previous generations; stay closer to their houses; are less likely to walk to school; and are unable to identify many common wildlife species.
This is not just a UK problem. There’s similar evidence in the US: children spend more time indoors, and when they are outside it’s more likely to be in structured activities like sports rather than just exploring. In one recent study, 71 percent of mothers surveyed said that they had played outdoors daily as children, but only 26 percent of their children did. Other research has found that parents don’t take their children outside: only 51 percent of children were taken outside to play or walk once a day.
So what? Well, the rise of obesity is one concern. Children are more likely to engage in physical activity outdoors than indoors. But there are other measurable benefits as well. Studies suggest that access to green space reduces stress and aggression and may reduce the symptoms of ADHD. The way children play in natural settings (compared to, say, an asphalt playground) also seems to be socially different: less hierarchical, less rule-bound.
Most parents remember their own days of playing outside fondly. But they restrict their children’s access because of a fear of crime, because there’s no time between soccer, ballet, and violin lessons, and also because the green spaces just don’t seem to be there anymore. What children need is some time and space that is set aside, not designated for a particular purpose. Is there room for that in our highly structured society? And if not, what might be the cost?
A good resource on the topic is available here.